On Fish, Time Travel, and the Longing for Something More


“I am encouraged when I see a dozen villagers drawn to Walden Pond to spend a day in fishing through the ice, and suspect that I have more fellows than I knew, but I am disappointed and surprised to find that they lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”

I read that unfamiliar quote from Henry David Thoreau while searching for a different pithy saying, and I have not been able to shake it.

The fish alone. Nothing else to be caught.

In pondering the meaning behind what the poet/abolitionist/philosopher/naturalist wrote, it got me thinking in several seemingly disconnected directions. But that’s how I am, so bear with me.

Which is why I’m switching writing about fish ponds to time travel.

 Caspar David Friedrich - "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog"

Caspar David Friedrich – “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”

A supposed Gallup poll cited by the podcast Mysterious Universe noted that when people were asked what piece of technology not yet invented would they most want and for what reason, “time machine” was cited by just over 80% of respondents. Why? To go back in time and change their broken past.

Thoreau’s 19th century statement about men and fish and a 21st century poll that had people desiring to go back in time, though seemingly unlinked, share an underlying desperation.

What so troubled Thoreau was that the act of fishing on a frozen body of water went beyond just catching the fish. The transcendent qualities of the experiencethe camaraderie shared by the fishermen, the rapture of nature, the participation in the blessings of the Creator, the innumerable numinous aspects of the “mere” act of fishing–were lost on the men who huddled around a dark blue hole in the white canvas that was Walden Pond.

The fish alone. And nothing more.

What are the great questions that form the backbone of all human inquiry? Who? What? Where? When? How?

And why?

When more than 80% of respondents in a poll about desired technology want a time machine to go back and undo whatever it was that went wrong in their lives, the underlying question that has troubled them is the one of why. Why did things turn out the way they did?

For most of human history, people have struggled more with the other questions. Who is God? What has He done? Where can He be found? When can I know Him? And how?

But despite the why of the Book of Job, why is more of a modern question. It is a step beyond the more basic questions. That Job asked them may make him the first “modern” man.

Today, in 2015, the other questions of life pale in light of the question of why. Science has told us much, but why still eludes us. By its very nature, why is a transcendent question.

And this brings us to the American Church.

If I could categorize 2014’s chatter about the Church, one of the top three topics would be, Where have all the churchgoers gone? This lament is everywhere and everyone has an observation and an answer. (Though some good detective work will show that the actual number of supposedly “former” attendees is not so much avoiding church altogether. Instead, they still attend, only not every week as they once did, which makes the attendance numbers on any given Sunday lower, making it seem as if those people have dropped out entirely, which is not the case. Lies, damned lies, and statistics, right?)

What I see almost none of the handwringers noting is what I think is behind much of the drop–or the more sporadic attendance. And it goes back to fish and time machines.

When today’s church tries to answer the cry of why, the common response is to point to God’s sovereignty. And this proves problematic, because the Church is mistakenly assuming something.

For the mass of men, there is only the fish. When these men go to church, they get a bad rock concert atmosphere that stands in for transcendence. They get a message delivered by someone who experienced something transcendent a long time ago and has been running on the fumes of it for years now.

Most men go to church, experience nothing transcendent, fail to use amid the assembly the gifts God has given them to any appreciable measure, barely interact with their fellows, and then stumble off to a fishing hole on a bleak, frozen pond to get some fish. Because there is nothing else but the fish.

These men go to church on Sunday with the question of why eating holes in their guts, and the church tries to answer that transcendent question with a supposedly transcendent answer, yet nothing of those men’s experience in church from week to week ever takes them anywhere into the genuine transcendent light of God. You can’t meet transcendent needs of people who are stuck thinking only of fish, if all you can talk about is the fish itself. And churches today are absolutely mired in talking about the fish.

You can blame the leaders, but the fact is, most of them are generations removed from the last transcendent moves of God in this country. A lot of them are struggling themselves with the blandness of their spiritual lives.

Most people experience nothing of the transcendent moves of the Holy Spirit on any given Sunday, and we do next to nothing to empower men and women to serve each other in the midst of the assembly, so their spiritual gifts–one very real connection to transcendence–go unused.

Every day it seems I hear of another Evangelical who has “swum the Tiber,” looking for transcendence in the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not sure the Catholics have got the transcendence thing down any better than the Protestants do, especially in America.

Or else you see once solid Christians incorporating Eastern spirituality into their beliefs, a surefire way to dash themselves on the rocks of heresy.

And it’s all because we have a serious lack transcendence in our churches today. Coincidentally, all my thinking on this started with Thoreau, and only as I sat down to write it did I recall that he was labeled a Transcendentalist. How fitting.

When human beings ask why, they will only be satisfied with the kind of answer the Church gives today if that same Church is taking those people to a place–and person–of transcendence week after week. People who experience no genuine transcendence in the day to day will simply shrug off our answers, especially if for all our talk of transcendence, we don’t deliver or experience it either.

We live in a world of the mundane, largely of our own making. For most, there is only the fish and nothing else. To solve the problems of mankind, the Church in America has got to rediscover transcendence.

The Church knows there is something more than the fish. If we’re not reinforcing this in everything we say and do, both on Sunday and during the rest of the week, then we will not be offering the one thing that people desperately need, even if they are unaware of that need.

God help us if our own experience of transcendence is as empty as the people we’re attempting to save.

6 thoughts on “On Fish, Time Travel, and the Longing for Something More

  1. Roger D McCook

    Or perhaps these simple men at the pond realize you can’t find transcendence by walking around in circles spouting urbane phrases, that they find such people who do to be self-absorbed wannabes vainly aspiring to some lofty transcendent goal they can never capture with their many words, and such were many of them before they gave it up the vain pursuit. The men focus on the mundane, the catching of fish, the breaking of bread, and the giving of thanks — the simple things. And as they do so, they find they have shared something with others, that something mysterious has mysteriously occurred, and though they can’t quite find the words to describe it, surely they know transcendence has flowed through those not seeking to describe it, through those not seeking to deny others the experience because these “others”, these people who are clearly beneath them, insist on doing simple things and not yack … yack … yacking about it all the time.

    • Roger,

      I owned a dog once. She was a simple, mundane creature who hunted, ate, and–if you’ve ever owned a dog, you’ll understand–gave thanks.

      But men are not dogs. God placed eternity in the hearts of men, and we are by nature transcendent creatures because we are made in the image of God, not in the image of animals. However, too many men live like animals.

      Get pack of dogs together and they are unlikely to discuss transcendence and far more likely to fight each other and damage a neighborhood. Sadly, too often the same applies to “simple men.”

      If anything, we “yack” about transcendence in no measurable quantity, not even in our churches, where it should be a primary issue. When was the last time you had a such a conversation?

      We are not and never were mundane creatures. To settle for mundanity is to deny what God put in our hearts. No, Thoreau was right. And we have got to get back that concern for transcendence before the Church becomes so mundane that it no longer carries the imprint of the Divine.

  2. To paraphrase the country song, perhaps we are “Lookin’ for transcendence in all the wrong places”. We are so culturally conditioned to “go to church” and expect something holy to happen only to come away disappointed week after week because that is never what God intended. We expect something special to happen when the church comes together but we have created structures that ensure that will never, can never, happen. What we are left with is empty ritual and observation, repeated ad nauseum. People are attracted to Rome in spite of the grotesque error because at least they have the “mystery” and ritual thing down after 1700 years whereas evangelicals have only a poor copy.

    • Arthur,

      I don’t need to have something “holy happen” every church meeting. But I do hope that we will do those simple things that are part of the transcendent “package” that defines the Church.

      This morning in my own church, the pastor (in his message on community) noted that a person who “simply attends church on Sunday each week is a passive spectator.” The irony of that was not lost on me. How is it that our Sunday meetings have become a spectacle of passivity so that ministry only occurs OUTSIDE of the Sunday meeting? Why are we not meeting in such a way that we are active and doing the things Jesus said we should: heal the sick, bear each other’s burdens, exercise the use of our spiritual gifts, pray for one another, and make sure no one in need goes away lacking? Isn’y transcendence found in DOING the things the Church was meant to do? I mean, because they are supernaturally empowered, are they not transcendent by nature? Yet why are they not done on most Sundays in most churches today? This is a puzzle I cannot understand.

  3. Andrew

    When you write, “And churches today are absolutely mired in talking about the fish,” I find a very revealing connection between the problems you see in American churches and the hope of meeting the needs of hurting people in God. Peter and Andrew were fishers by trade, but Jesus comes to them and tells them to follow Him and He will make them fishers of men. If many American churches are only talking about the fish, it seems that we’re stuck at Matthew 4:18 and haven’t stepped into 4:19: following Jesus and fishing for men. When we, the American church, repent of going back to fishing (as Peter did in John 21) and pray to follow Jesus anew, then we, the American church, will transcend the mundane: the transcendence of Jesus’ presence and Lordship will be known, the Holy Spirit will minister to hurting men and women, and we will no longer be “generations removed from the last transcendent moves of God in this country.”

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